Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Arthur Janov, psychologist who created the ‘primal scream,’ dies at 93

By Emily Langer

October 4, 2017 at 6:20 PM

Dr. Janov, shown here in 2008, died Oct. 1 at 93. (Family Photo/Family Photo)

Arthur Janov, the psychologist who created, practiced and preached primal therapy, a sensation of the 1970s in which patients were coached to let out sobs or screams as they relived childhood trauma in a quest to overcome neurosis, died Oct. 1 at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 93.

The cause was respiratory arrest following a stroke, his wife, France Janov, told the Associated Press.

Through his treatment of celebrities — among them entertainers John Lennon, Yoko Ono and James Earl Jones — Dr. Janov became a celebrity in his own right beginning in the 1970s.

In a best-selling book, and in appearances on television programs such as "The Dick Cavett Show," he converted curious onlookers to committed followers with an enticingly simple explanation of psychological ailments, and what he billed as a near surefire way of resolving them.

His debut book, "The Primal Scream," was published in 1970 and sold more than 1 million copies. In that and subsequent volumes, he laid out his theory of Primal Pain, a term he rendered in capital letters.

If a baby suffers unduly during birth, or if his or her basic needs of food, warmth, love and stimulation are not met during infancy, that child may grow up and develop neuroses or other ills. They might include addiction, schizophrenia, sexual dysfunction, psoriasis, menstrual cramps and homosexuality, he wrote, despite the rapidly evolving understanding among doctors that homosexuality is not an illness.

To resolve Primal Pain, Dr. Janov invited patients to regress to childhood. His offices included cribs and toys. Patients were permitted or encouraged to suck their thumbs. Only once they have reached their former infant state might they access the Primal Pain that they had repressed.

His therapy became popularly known as "primal scream therapy" for the manner in which patients sometimes released that pain — through shouts such as "Daddy, be nice!" or "I hate you, I hate you!" Dr. Janov said his work was often misrepresented and reduced to screams, when in fact the release might instead take place through writhing or crying.

Reporting remarkable success rates, Dr. Janov declared his treatment "the most important discovery of the 20th century." Jones, the actor, told Newsweek that primal therapy had resolved his hemorrhoids and helped him to stop smoking. The pianist Roger Williams said the therapy cured him of the problem of cold hands.

Mental-health professionals were less enthusiastic. In 1977, Dr. Janov sued the publication Psychology Today for $7.1 million in libel damages for describing primal therapy as "jabberwocky."

"Janov has one card up his sleeve which few of us more skeptical therapists can match. He is absolutely sure that he is right," Anthony Storr, a British psychiatrist and author, wrote in a 1972 New York Times review of Dr. Janov's book "The Primal Revolution." "Primal therapy is not only the best cure for neurosis, it is the only cure — a statement not only arrogant but demonstrably false."

Storr acknowledged that Dr. Janov had "made a lot of neurotics feel better," but he attributed the success essentially to the power of suggestion.

"If people are told with complete certainty that their symptoms are due to early parental neglect, that . . . screaming their heads off about it will cure them," Storr wrote, "then a large number of people will recall such infantile traumas, and will scream their heads off with benefit."

Dr. Janov, however, promised that any patient who has "relieved Primal Pains and interpreted their meaning for himself will never need therapy again." He counted himself among its beneficiaries.

Arthur Janov, a son of Russian immigrants, was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 21, 1924. He described his father, a butcher and truck driver, and his mother as "indifferent parents who didn't care about kids."

"The great favor they did me was to give me enough pain to discover the role of pain," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993.

After Navy service during World War II, he received a bachelor's degree, followed by a master's degree in psychiatric social work, from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1960, he received a PhD in psychology from Claremont Graduate University in California.

Dr. Janov had practiced psychology for nearly two decades when, during a session, a young patient emitted what Dr. Janov described as a "piercing, deathlike scream." Dr. Janov had the intuition to invite the patient to call out for his parents. The breakthrough he said the patient experienced led him to develop the full regimen of primal therapy.

He founded his Southern California clinic in 1968. By the early 1990s, he commanded as much as $5,000 for treatment. The clinic remains in operation, although Dr. Janov said he looked forward to a time when it would not be necessary.

"The greatest hoax of the 20th century is psychiatry," he told Newsweek in 1971. "In the future, there will be no need for a field called psychology. Add we would need only 20 percent of the present medical profession since 80 percent of all ailments would be cured by primal therapy."

His first marriage, to Vivian Glickstein, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Ellen Janov, died in 1976.

Dr. Janov's survivors include his wife of 46 years, the former France Daunic; a son from his first marriage, Richard Janov; a son from his second marriage, Xavier Janov; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Dr. Janov's fame exploded from his association with Lennon and Ono, who drew on their experiences of primal screams for the albums "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" and "Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band" (both 1970). Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 that "you are so astounded with what you find out about yourself" through the treatment. The song "Shout," performed by the British band "Tears for Fears," also referred to primal therapy.

But Dr. Janov emphasized that his treatment was not only for the well-to-do.

"If you're plagued by feelings you can't understand, you're unhappy with your life or you have physical symptoms that won't go away, these are all signs of Primal Pain," he once told USA Today.

As for his treatment, it "is not a celebrity therapy," he said. "It's for people who are suffering."

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Jalal Talabani, unifying former president of Iraq, dies at 83

Tom Petty, Hall of Fame singer who became rock mainstay in 1970s, dies at 66

Zuzana Ruzickova, Holocaust survivor who rediscovered life's beauty in Bach, dies at 90


Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

You obviously love great journalism.

With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.

Already a subscriber?

Secure & Encrypted